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Using learning technology to boost student engagement

In spring 2020, more than 1,300 universities and colleges across the US cancelled their in-person classes or shifted to online-only instruction. This led to valuable lessons in boosting student engagement by pairing educational technology with intentional design. While the opportunity to return to in-person classes is welcome, remote instruction should not now be cast aside or stigmatised as “less than”. Academics should continue to harness the benefits remote learning can bring to student engagement and flexibility alongside in-person teaching. Here’s how to do that effectively: 

Keep learning in small groups to foster peer-to-peer learning and community  

Ironically, remote learning has opened the opportunity for more intimate instruction, not less. Use online learning spaces to divide large classes into small groups via “virtual tables”, organised by student comprehension, subject matter interest, location, native language or nothing at all. Being in groups of no more than 10 enables constructive conversations and collaboration, encouraging students to help each other with questions or challenging concepts. Smaller learning groups reduce the fear and reluctance to ask questions or speak up in front of fellow classmates.

Use real-time feedback to adjust teaching approach  

Online learning platforms can indicate individual and class-wide student sentiment and understanding via real-time feedback more easily than in a tech-free classroom. Incorporate simple rating tools, such as thumbs up or down and emoji reactions, to gather organic feedback with minimal effort. Or craft quick-feedback forms to be completed in a couple of minutes at the end of class, with just one or two key questions. Intentionally designed digital classrooms can provide data that offer insights into student interactions beyond what is immediately visible to you – such as indicating if students are taking notes, chatting with peers or participating in group discussions – without relying on more invasive tracking methods such as webcams or screen watching.

By looking at this data, during or between class sessions, you can adjust your teaching speed, level of explanation and activities to support learning. For example, if class participation is low, provide a specific question and have students discuss it in smaller groups to enable peer-to-peer learning.

Use frequent formative assessments to evaluate understanding and foster learning  

Data collection is a challenge for large in-person classes. The native capabilities of some digital tools, such as embedded quizzes that track individual answers, can offer more granular insights into students’ understanding and should be used regularly to measure ongoing engagement and comprehension. For instance, incorporate short knowledge-checker quizzes throughout class to find out if further explanation is required.  

Having students explain concepts to each other has huge value. Those who already understand can deepen their knowledge, and those who don’t are more likely to have an “aha” moment when discussing concepts with someone of a similar level of expertise. Use a platform to automatically pair students with disparate answers to employ “think pair share” pedagogy. Quiz again afterwards to see who might need additional attention or help outside class.  

Give students flexibility in when and how they communicate with you, and each other  

Student self-confidence varies greatly. Provide a safe space for questions to be asked publicly, anonymously, in real time or after the fact to encourage shy students, non-native speakers or those not fully grasping the material to come forward. Submitting questions anonymously is proven to increase participation from students who would otherwise stay silent.

Enabling students to engage via writing, rather than verbally, can be powerful, as it allows students to craft and edit their contribution before sharing it. Use a platform that allows for concurrent spoken and written participation through chat functions or similar and be explicit when soliciting responses from students that they can write or speak. Ensure you highlight and respond equally to both methods of student engagement.

It’s important to provide structures through which students can re-engage with content – and each other – outside the live class session. You could share a recording, so students can re-listen to sections of the session that were interesting or confusing; create meaningful group work assignments, so students discuss the material together; and provide a place where students can submit questions that come up outside the class session and share their thoughts with one another. Students can then re-engage alone or in groups for real-time peer discussions about the session, furthering peer learning and decreasing reliance on immediate answers from you at all hours.

Support all students equally, regardless of circumstance  

You won’t ever know what your students have gone through over the past two years. Family losses, lost jobs, increased obligations and more may be blocking them from participating as much as they would like. They may even be considering dropping out of school. Ensure you’re providing support and flexibility for them to learn and engage. If the data show a decrease in activity, reach out and help them discover how they can learn on their terms and schedule.   

Andreina Parisi-Amon is the vice-president of learning and teaching at Engageli.  

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